The Mercury News Weekend

Half of state now freed from drought

`Epic snowpack,' heavy rainfall made a difference, federal report says

- By Paul Rogers and Scooty Nickerson

Soaked by heavy rains in recent weeks, the biggest Sierra snowpack in 30 years and flooding from a parade of atmospheri­c river storms in January, the majority of California — including the Bay Area — is no longer in a drought, federal officials reported Thursday.

Overall, 49.1% of California can be classified as in a drought, a dramatic drop from 84.6% last week, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheri­c Administra­tion, the U.S. Department of Agricultur­e and the University of Nebraska.

That's the lowest percentage in more than three years when 48.2% of the state was in a drought in July 2020, according to the report, which is based on rainfall totals, reservoir levels, snowpack, soil moisture and other measures.

“The Pacific weather systems of this week and last week added to copious precipitat­ion that has been received from atmospheri­c rivers since December 2022, especially over California,” wrote Richard Heim, a meteorolog­ist with NOAA.

The last time that no part of

California was in at least a moderate-level drought was February 2020, the report noted.

While the Bay Area's fortunes changed due to heavy rainfall, high stream flows, soil moisture and reservoir levels, a big part of the reason for the statewide shift has been massive snow accumulati­ng in the Sierra.

“This is an epic snowpack, particular­ly in the central and southern Sierra,” said Jeffrey

Mount, a professor emeritus at UC Davis and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California's water center. “In some places it's off the charts. People will be skiing until summer.”

On Wednesday, the statewide Sierra snowpack was 192% of its historical average, according to a series of 107 automated snow sensors operated by the state Department of Water Resources.

That's the highest March 1 reading since 1993 when it was 205%. In fact, there have only been four years back to 1950, when consistent statewide records began, when the Sierra snowpack was larger on March 1 than it is now. Those are 1969 (263% of average), 1952 (228%), 1983 (211%) and 1993.

The latest round of snowstorms closed Yosemite National Park last weekend. The park was expected to reopen Thursday, but spokesman Scott Gediman said it remains closed indefinite­ly.

The storms also closed Highway 50 and Interstate 80 on Monday and Tuesday and shut

down schools across the Lake Tahoe area. On Tuesday, there was so much snow that many of the major ski resorts, including Palisades, Heavenly and Kirkwood, closed due to avalanche danger, blocked roads and snow so deep it was impeding chairlifts.

“We have snow covering all of our second-floor windows. I'm going to have to shovel the roof soon,” said Andrew Schwartz, lead scientist at the UC Central Sierra Snow Lab at Donner Summit.

There was a brief respite Thursday and today but more snow and rain are expected across Northern California this weekend.

Schwartz reported that the snow lab received 35 inches of snow from Tuesday to Wednesday, 7 feet over the previous three days and 12 feet over the past seven days.

In the coming months, that snow will melt, continuing to fill reservoirs across the state. It also will help replenish groundwate­r — although not restore areas that have been overpumped for generation­s such as the San Joaquin Valley. And all the snow will reduce the risk of wildfires because forests will be buried in snow longer into the summer than normal.

Yet, despite the heavy rain and snow, legally all 58 of California's counties remain in a drought emergency that was declared by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October 2021. That status included a state order for local water agencies to impose conservati­on restrictio­ns on homes and businesses.

As the current wet winter has unfolded, Newsom has directed officials at the state Department of Water Resources to report back to him in April after the winter rain and snow season is over, with recommenda­tions on which parts of the state should be removed from the emergency declaratio­n.

California had endured three record-dry years in a row, marked by severe heat waves, massive wildfires, water restrictio­ns for millions of people and water shortages at farms.

In November, 40.9% of the state was in extreme drought, the third worst of four categories the Drought Monitor uses, and 16.5% was in exceptiona­l drought, the worst. After a series of nine atmospheri­c river storms from late December to midJanuary, which triggered flooding, downed trees and killed at least 20 people, the Drought Monitor removed all of the state from those two most severe categories.

On Thursday, 24.9% of California remained in “severe drought,” the secondwors­t category, down from 91.8% in November. The

Sacramento Valley, from Yolo County to the Oregon border, made up most of the area with the most serious drought conditions still remaining.

None of California's 15 coastal counties, where many reservoirs are 100% full, are still in any kind of drought status. The Sierra Nevada also is completely out of drought from Fresno County's higher elevations to Sierra County north of Lake Tahoe.

Although the ninecounty Bay Area is no longer in a drought, it is still classified “abnormally dry,” a level below drought. Los Angeles, Orange and

San Diego counties are in the same classifica­tion.

State water officials have noted that while many reservoirs are full or above their historical averages, some, such as the state's largest, Shasta, or the third-largest, Trinity, both near Redding, fell so low during the drought they haven't filled yet. Shasta on Thursday was 60% full, for example.

And while reservoirs are brimming in coastal counties such as Marin, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara that took the brunt of January storms, Southern California has a water crisis with low levels on one of its key sources, the Colorado River, which hasn't benefited much from the big storms.

“Some areas will likely come out of drought conditions because of the very wet conditions we've had,” said Jeanine Jones, a top official at the Department of Water Resources, last month. “But it really depends on a water supplier's individual sources of supply.”

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 ?? JAE C. HONG — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? State Route 138winds through snow-covered trees near Hesperia in San Bernardino County on Wednesday. Tremendous rains and snowfall since late last year have freed half of California from drought, U.S. Drought Monitor data showed Thursday.
JAE C. HONG — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS State Route 138winds through snow-covered trees near Hesperia in San Bernardino County on Wednesday. Tremendous rains and snowfall since late last year have freed half of California from drought, U.S. Drought Monitor data showed Thursday.
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